By JANET REYNOLDS
It’s almost impossible to travel far in the Adirondack Park—literally or virtually on park-related websites—without seeing signs or banners proclaiming “help wanted.” In the Adirondacks, finding the right employee can seem as elusive as that last peak in the quest to become a 46er.
The employment signs are both good and bad news.
The good news is that overall unemployment is low, meaning that a lot of park residents have jobs. The bad news is that economic growth is almost impossible without additional workers to perform the work.
The overall unemployment rate in the North Country as of July was 4.8, according to Susan Matton, vice president of economic development for the North Country Chamber of Commerce. That’s a drop from 5.7 percent in a year. In October, the only Adirondack Park county with higher than 4 percent unemployment was St. Lawrence, at 4.2 percent.
“We don’t have enough people and we will probably be in that situation for the foreseeable future throughout the North Country,” Matton says.
But it turns out that attracting the right seasonal workers and resident professionals is only part of the economic challenge. Finding them a place to stay makes luring people to the park even more difficult.
Sylvia Getman is CEO and president of Adirondack Health, one of the park’s largest employers with approximately 800 employees. As the only full-service health system located entirely within the blue line, Adirondack Health constantly needs workers from entry-level to medical providers. “Health care as an industry sees a fairly high rate of turnover due to the challenging nature of the jobs and, especially in an area as tight-knit as ours, the stress that accompanies caring for one’s friends and neighbors,” Getman says. “As a rural health system, Adirondack Health has to work relatively harder to recruit and retain employees at the two ends of our workforce spectrum: entry level and provider.”
The lack of affordable residential housing stock only adds to the challenge, Getman says. “Entry-level employees at times struggle to find quality affordable housing and reliable transportation,” she says, while a national shortage of medical providers including doctors and physician assistants complicates retention.
“We are particularly interested in finding doctors drawn to these beautiful mountains and the quality of life they offer,” Getman says. “That said, doctors are also oftentimes carrying student loan debts approaching half a million dollars and are not in the position to just up and purchase an expensive waterfront home.”
Other businesses face similar constraints.
“Housing is a huge issue,” says David Kahn, executive director of the Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake. “When we hire for a year-round job, we know it’s going to be a huge hassle to find housing.”
That’s one reason the museum offers new employees limited housing on the campus for three months so they can find housing they like in the area. “Without that it would be very difficult to recruit people,” he says, noting the museum has a year-round staff of about 30.
At the time of this interview, the museum had a new year-round employee about to begin work. “She’s looking at houses in Saranac Lake, an hour from here,” Kahn says, noting one employee already drives the hour-each-way drive from Saranac Lake while others drive from Tupper Lake, a 40-minute drive—in good weather. “It does reflect the degree of scarcity of housing in the immediate area.”
The museum’s housing issue only heats up in the summer, when the museum hires 50-60 additional staff people to do everything from sell tickets and run the gift shop to maintain the facility. “We have residential structures on campus that can accommodate a certain number of people but it’s never up to the demand,” Kahn says. That need is one reason the museum created a campus master plan that includes potentially building a dormitory to house seasonal workers. That dormitory could possibly house other seasonal workers in the area, too, Kahn says.
Brad Grainger is a member of the steering committee for The Hedges at Blue Mountain, a newly-formed consortium that took over the longtime popular Adirondack retreat. The group hires up to 12 seasonal workers, many of them from abroad. Joining forces with the museum might solve their annual summer worker housing crunch, Grainger says. Last summer, they rented a house in Indian Lake and transported the workers back and forth to The Hedges. “It was not the easiest solution,” he says, “and you need a driver. We tried to buy a house but there wasn’t enough housing stock to choose from.”
Margie Philo, broker/owner of Berkshire Hathaway, Adirondack Premier Properties in Lake Placid and Adirondack Realty in Keene Valley, says that resort areas often have housing shortages. “It’s an ongoing issue in all resort towns,” she says, ticking off places like Stowe, Vt., and Vail, Colo. “In any high-end resort area it’s harder for the full-time workforce to find affordable housing and they’re forced to live further out.”
In the Adirondack Park, part of the shortage can be traced to the plethora of second homes in the region, Philo says. “They buy expensive homes and keep them for weekly rentals, not year-round rental because they want to enjoy the house a few weeks a year. If they put a workforce person in [as a renter] they can’t use their own house. The market shrinks when people buy like this.”
Meanwhile those interested in buying—teachers, nurses and others—are often priced out, Philo says. “It’s tighter and harder to find inexpensive rental housing and lower-priced purchased housing,” she says. “We’re in a small rural area with not a lot of outlying towns with housing, which makes it more difficult. Also there are no apartment complexes.
“If Plattsburgh were 10 minutes away rather than an hour, the housing issue would be solved.”
James McKenna, president of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), says housing is a growing issue in all categories. “Housing in the Adirondacks has never been in over-supply capacity,” he says. The private rental phenomenon (AirBnB, HomeAway, etc.) has only exacerbated that. “We’re seeing cases where traditional housing stock for communities has been bought for the purpose of the private rental industry. That eliminates housing options.”
In previous years, zombie houses, those houses abandoned by their owners due to forfeiture or other reasons, also reduced the available affordable housing stock for full-time residents. These blighted homes might have been of interest to the right buyer willing to take them on for the reduced price. Their often complicated credit histories, however, made selling them a challenge.
The number of zombie homes in the park has diminished since the passage of the Abandoned Property Neighborhood Act of 2016. The act requires the mortgagee or its loan servicing agent to maintain any property secured by delinquent mortgages. That means banks were on the line for paying for property upkeep and taxes, which in turn pushed more of them to try to offload the properties more quickly and potentially at more reasonable prices.
Tupper Lake is one village that has seen the act’s effect firsthand. Peter Edwards, code enforcement officer for Tupper Lake, says the number of zombie homes in the village has dropped from about 30 last year to only four or five now. “Within the last year a majority of the banks ended up taking the zombie homes and putting them on the market,” he says. “All the cheaper homes from $15,000 to $75,000 have been selling like crazy over the summer.”
But even if every zombie home was released for sale, the Adirondacks would still have an overall housing stock shortage. Fixing that, say proponents, is going to take creative thinking.
One potential opportunity is the Winter World University Games, coming to the Lake Placid and the region in 2023. The Games will take place over 11 days and feature pre- and post-competition events such as conferences.
The Games are for university students and include most winter sports, such as alpine skiing, speed skating, ice hockey, figure skating and more. They will be played everywhere from ice rinks in Potsdam to alpine events at Whiteface and Gore, as well as other components in Visitor Interpretive Centers, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. Darcy Norfolk, who helped oversee the bid process and is now interim executive director, expects they will have to host at least 3,000 athletes, trainers and coaches. That number only goes up when you add in officials, the media, spectators and volunteers.
Part of the bidding process to bring the University Games to the region included a sustainability plan. “Nobody wants to have the Games just to have the Games and the community doesn’t have anything remaining from it,” Norfolk says.
Housing is a critical part of that sustainability plan, she says. While the need is four years away, smart planning now can help offer area towns housing solutions after the last athlete leaves, Norfolk says. One host city, for instance, built condo townhouse units but did not put the kitchens in until later. This enabled them to house more athletes and then have something ready to upgrade and sell.
New York State Sen. Betty Little, who represents the region’s 45th District, continues to work to bring more affordable housing to the park. In 2005 she helped to fund the Adirondack Community Housing Trust, a nonprofit that helps working families find and purchase affordable housing in the park.
She has also spearheaded programs to help provide funding for rehabbing dilapidated mobile homes for potential use for workforce housing, and saved a program for potential first-time homebuyers. “We’re constantly looking for ways we can help with financing and encourage people to buy homes,” she says.
While the solutions are varied and debatable, there’s broad agreement that addressing the housing shortage is critical to future economic growth and sustainability in the park. “Housing is a key component—perhaps the key component—of workforce development, says Adirondack Health’s Getman, “and a developed, productive workforce is the key component to an economically sustainable community and region.”